Gov. Roy Cooper visits Durham to see aftermath of downtown explosion

Durham County News

DURHAM, N.C. (WNCN) – The North Carolina governor hopes federal relief will help the surviving victims of a deadly gas line explosion.

Gov. Roy Cooper met Thursday with first responders during a visit to the Duke Street site where an April 10 blowup demolished buildings and killed 61-year-old coffee shop owner Kong Lee.

“I think they said there were nine buildings, at least, that were involved in this, so it was a pretty powerful blast,” Cooper said.

“It’s a devastating scene. We’re glad that the building was evacuated because it’s hard to imagine anybody surviving that kind of powerful explosion, and of course we mourn the loss of life and are praying for those who got so seriously injured.”

About two dozen people were hurt, including several firefighters. The governor mentioned Durham firefighter Darren Wheeler, who suffered the most severe injuries of the rescuers.

Mayor Steve Schewel said three people remain hospitalized as of Thursday morning.

“We still have people who are struggling in terms of their own personal recovery and their families. We’re very worried about them,” Schewel said.

“The whole community is sending our best thoughts and prayers to them. Their recovery is on everyone’s mind.”

The mayor said the very first call he received after the explosion came from the governor. Schewel was waiting to ride to the site with Fire Chief Robert Zoldos when Cooper’s name and number appeared on his cell phone.

Schewel said the governor offered to provide any assistance he could.

“I was very concerned because to see that kind of smoke plume on TV from the helicopter cameras, I didn’t know what had happened,” Cooper said. “The Durham local officials responded quickly and effectively. I believe that they made the best out of this situation that they could.”

The governor said state emergency management officials are looking at sources of federal funding to reimburse building owners for some expenses, as well as the city of Durham for its losses. Cooper expects the Small Business Administration to offer some assistance.

Schewel said it will take a lot of work to repair and rebuild the block of Duke Street between Main and Morgan, which remains closed, as well as the surrounding areas. A construction company banner hung on a barricade at the end of the road says “Things will be restored soon!”

Cooper said it is important to keep in mind the damages to more than brick and metal.

“This certainly was devastating on a physical level to people who got injured, an emotional level for everyone around here, and really the whole city,” he said.

“You’ve got people who have jobs that may not have them right now, and businesses that were thriving that are closed down, and we want people to be able to get back on their feet as soon as they possibly can, so we’ll explore every avenue of help that can be provided.”

Officials said crews will be able to start clearing debris once the ground inspections are complete. The governor said he has been told that work will soon be done.

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